A return to California, and a lesson in romance

One of the great pleasures of Two Years Before the Mast, as I’ve noted, is its picture of California before there was anything there. As a historical document it’s really a treasure. I’ve never been to California, but I know there is more to San Francisco now than the presidio, and that hide-droghing has fallen by the wayside. And Dana was there in 1835-36—that is to say, not a terribly long time before the Mexican-American War, the gold rush, or Californian statehood.

Dana returned to California in 1859 and wrote a new chapter for his book, “Twenty-Four Years After,” which describes San Francisco as a city with a hundred thousand residents (with Protestant churches of every denomination! though the Pueblo de los Angeles is still a sleepier town of twenty thousand). Already the trade in hides up and down the coast is over—gold having changed just about everything—and the interior is beginning to be cultivated. As “a respectable-looking citizen on the wharf” tells him, “‘those old times of the Pilgrim and Alert and California, that we read about, are gone by.’” If only the citizen knew that he read about those ships in the book of his very interlocutor.

For Dana is famous in California. Nearly everyone has read his book, and there are still many people there whom he met his first time out. Acquaintances struck up and met again twenty-four years later, in the mid-early nineteenth century, on what was really a frontier, seem almost incredible. The poignancy of the whole thing is really too much, for me and Dana both.

The past was real. The present, all about me, was unreal, unnatural, repellent. I saw the big ships lying in the stream, the Alert, the California, the Rosa, with her Italians; then the handsome Ayacucho, my favorite; the poor, dear old Pilgrim, the home of hardship and hopelessness…. All, all were gone! … I alone was left of all, and how strangely was I here! … Why should I care for them,—poor Kanakas and sailors, the refuse of civilization, the outlaws and beachcombers of the Pacific! Time and death seemed to transfigure them. Doubtless nearly all were dead; but how had they died, and where? In hospitals, in fever-climes, in dens of vice, or falling from the mast, or dropping exhausted from the wreck…

A melancholy thought, and one that is only magnified when Dana goes on to recount all he knows of the later lives of the men he shipped with. Some did very well for themselves. But even those that did…Mr. Brown, the wonderful first mate, ended up a favorite captain, and died one day when he slipped from a plank stepping from the wharf onto his ship. And so-and-so who died when all hands went down. And so-and-so of the fever. In the original concluding chapter of the book, in which Dana hands down many thoughtful and fascinating prescriptions for the future benefit of sailors, he said:

The romantic interest which many take in the sea, and in those who live upon it, may be of use in exciting their attention to this subject, though I cannot but feel sure that all who have followed me in my narrative must be convinced that the sailor has no romance in his every-day life to sustain him, but that it is very much the same plain, matter-of-fact drudgery and hardship, which would be experienced on shore.

I knew it to be true, after reading his whole memoir. But until I found out how Mr. Brown died, it was hard to let all the romance go.*

And as if Dana and his voyage didn’t already have enough interesting history connected with them, the Pilgrim, the ship he sailed out on, was years later caught and burned off the Azores by the Confederate steamer Alabama.

*Of course, this whole project is on the romance of the sea. Because in some way Dana is wrong, or at least only part right. Everyday life aboard ship is certainly not romantic, but man’s struggle with the ocean is a grand and wondrous thing. It just turns out that no matter how many grand and wondrous things you’ve done, you can still fall from a plank and die.

Richard Henry Dana in California

In CommemorationTwo Years Before the Mast is one of the books I’ve been dipping in and out of, since I find these sea journals really lend themselves to that. Richard Henry Dana was a student at Harvard who took time off school to go on a merchant voyage around Cape Horn in 1834. He returned two years later after traveling to California and trading hides up and down the coast.

This is among the best of the sea journals I have read, partly because Dana describes the most about life on the ship. He is fully aware of how little his friends and family back in Cambridge know, and his memoir recounts in detail a great part of the work that must be done each day on a ship, and what life is like in the forecastle.

But the parts on and near shore might be even better. When Dana is on the ship, he’s really concerned with the people on it anyway: the way the men treat each other, the relationship between the men and the officers, what the men do and think and feel all day. When they arrive on the coast he has much more material for consideration and these parts are a really interesting portrait of Mexican California and its inhabitants.

Dana describes enough about the place that you can completely picture it in your mind. He explains about the civil and religious administration, about the presidios and the missions and the towns, and on his shore leave he rents horses to ride around the countryside rather than getting drunk in a fandango like most of the others.

That is not to say that he is exactly kind to the Californians. He is charmed by them, but an unsurprising but strong current of anti-Catholicism leaves him treating them as more a curiosity than a people to be respected. Still, his comments are enlightening historically, especially for someone without great knowledge of the area. And his ideas about trade—the whole purpose of the merchant marine—are a bit ironic but not untrue.

The Californians are an idle, thriftless people, and can make nothing for themsleves. The country abounds in grapes, yet they buy bad wines made in Boston and brought round by us, at an immense price, and retail it among themselves at a real (12 1/2 cents) by the small wine-glass. Their hides, too, which they value at two dollars in money, they give for something which costs seventy-five cents in Boston; and buy shoes (like as not, made of their own hides, and which have been carried twice around Cape Horn) at three or four dollars, and “chicken-skin” boots at fifteen dollars apiece. Things sell, on an average, at an advance of nearly three hundred per cent upon the Boston prices. This is partly owing to the heavy duties which the government, in their wisdom, with the intent, no doubt, of keeping the silver in the country, has laid upon imports.

The descriptions of the Native Americans are worse, bad enough to be a little upsetting in places.

The language of these people, which is spoken by all the Indians of California, is the most brutish and inhuman language, without any exception, that I ever heard, or that could well be conceived of. It is a complete slabber. The words fall off of the ends of their tongues, and a continual slabbering sound is made in the cheeks, outside of the teeth. It cannot have been the language of Montezuma and the independent Mexicans.

He loves the Hawaiians though, who crew many of the ships that ply the coast. Though he is still at least a little patronizing.

Their proper names, in their own language, being difficult to pronounce and remember, they are called by any names which the captains or crews may choose to give them. Some are called after the vessel they are in; others by common names, as Jack, Tom, Bill; and some have fancy names, as Ban-yan, Fore-top, Rope-yarn, Pelican, etc., etc. …But by whatever names they might be called, they were the most interesting, intelligent, and kind-hearted people that I ever fell in with. I felt a positive attachment for almost all of them; and many of them I have, to this time, a feeling for, which would lead me to go a great way for the mere pleasure of seeing them, and which will always make me feel a strong interest in the mere name of a Sandwich Islander.

Contemporary travel writing seems fairly popular, but I don’t think it could possibly be as interesting as the travels of someone from a hundred years ago. This is a foreigner—from early 19th century Boston—visiting a foreign land; Dana is both my connection to the rougher sailors and inhabitants of California and also distant from me himself.

Image above by Flickr user littlevanities, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic license.

As if it had been a Christian soul, we hailed it in God’s name

All of the personal narratives I’ve been reading of time at sea, including those by Richard Henry Dana, William Bligh, the crew of the Essex, Amasa Delano, spend considerable time discussing the flora and fauna they encounter on their travels. Not a huge surprise, of course—they were all traveling to quite exotic places, with animals very different from what they were used to, and sometimes doing so so early that they were among the first to see them.

The sailors that reach the Galapagos talk about the lizards. Many, many of them also talk about turtles, tortoises, and terrapins (very popular food). Penguins are noteworthy. Birds in general are often mentioned, especially since even the ordinary ones signal the long-awaited nearing of land. But the albatross is probably the most striking creature the sailors discuss.


Striking for me (and presumably most other readers) because of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Striking for the sailors because the albatross is, apparently, a truly amazing bird. Strange for someone familiar with the poem, in more than one of these voyages do the men leave bait for albatrosses over the stern, hoping to catch one. They don’t actually describe eating them, but one can only assume that they do. In Two Years Before the Mast:

I had been interested in the bird from descriptions which I had read of it, and was not at all disappointed. We caught one or two with a baited hook which we floated astern upon a shingle. Their long, flapping wings, long legs, and large, staring eyes, give them a very peculiar appearance. They look well on the wing, but one of the finest sights that I have ever seen, was an albatross asleep upon the water, during a calm, off Cape Horn, when a heavy sea was running. There being no breeze, the surface of the water was unbroken, but a long, heavy swell was rolling, and we saw the fellow, all white, directly ahead of us, asleep upon the waves, with his head under his wing; now rising on the top of a huge billow, and then falling slowly until he was lost in the hollow between.

The huge white birds seem to be one of those things in life that don’t disappoint. And the sailors are certainly in awe of them, even though they kill them. This seems to be true of a great many things the sailors kill and often eat: whales, turtles, dolphins, Santiago’s marlin. The awe and majesty of the sea imparted to its creatures, even when we must hunt and eat them? I don’t know, but sometimes it feels that way.

Water was far from the only thing that made things shift and sway and rock wildly aboard the Tallahassee

Margaret Cohen borrows a line from White Jacket to describe the ship in “The Chronotopes of the Sea”: “a ship is a bit of terra firm cut off from the main; it is a state in itself; and the captain is its king.” A state in itself, a tiny piece of land floating around the blue and white and brown water. And because it’s tiny, and cut off, no one can come and no one can leave.

This is a central force behind the action of the inside novel Voyage Along the Horizon. Victor Arledge, Hugh Everett Bayham, Léonide Meffre, the Handls, Captain Kerrigan, all are stuck together for the duration of the Antarctic voyage. They are also all stuck with the crew and the scientists. The artists, it should be mentioned, are there to make a floating colony and create austral-inspired art. The scientists are there to perform their own art in the Antarctic. But the artists seem like a bunch of dilettantes, deciding to make port calls all over the Mediterranean before setting out in earnest. This means before the trip even makes Gibraltar, everyone is ready to strangle everyone else.

This itself is almost an inversion of the normal ship. As Richard Henry Dana put it in Two Years Before the Mast:

…at sea—to use a homely but expressive phrase—you miss a man so much. A dozen men are shut up together in a little bark, upon the wide, wide sea, and for months see no forms and hear no voices but their own, and one is taken suddenly from among them, and they miss him at every turn. It is like losing a limb. There are no new faces or new scenes to fill up the gap.

But on the Tallahassee, if only losing a limb were so easily accomplished. In fact, the boatswain does disappear and turn up near Alexandria, dead, and not only is no one upset, no one even misses him or does much to look for him (this is among the passengers; we have limited knowledge of the crew). And Captain Kerrigan disappears in a way when he is shut up in his cabin, and no one could be happier. Eventually he even escapes the ship and while the passengers may want him brought to justice they are thrilled to be rid of him. No one can get off this ship fast enough—except the scientists. They want to continue to Antarctica, but the ship never makes it past Tangiers.

While Victor Arledge’s antics cause a decent part of the awkwardness on board, it’s really Kerrigan whose actions make the trip fall apart. The whole voyage was undertaken almost entirely through the force of his personality. He persuaded his own artistic friends and acquaintances to make the huge project their own, and after he is on the outs the glue holding them together quickly melts away.

That’s getting ahead of myself a little. Why does Kerrigan end up locked up? The immediate cause is a drunken rampage that culminates in him actually throwing another passenger off the ship, and threatening to throw off another. The cause of the drunkenness is depression brought on by thoughts of his lost love, part of a past no one but Arledge knows about. That story forms another of the novel’s nested narratives: Arledge recounts for Bayham the sordid history of Kerrigan—not really a captain—as a smuggler and pirate. Kerrigan’s got a whole slew of ship and blue water happenings in his past. This isn’t the first time he’s wanted to get rid of some passengers on his ship; he acquired his lost love after killing her husband and their friend on a desert island he helped them discover in the Pacific.

Another salient feature of the chronotope of the ship is discipline. The captain is its king, and his word is law. On the Tallahassee, Kerrigan is not really captain, and the captain is stabbed by Kerrigan and laid up in bed much of the voyage. Fordington-Lewthwaite, formerly third in command, ends up in charge, and he is ready to begin the authoritarianism that thus far the ship has been missing. He’s all too happy to take charge of Kerrigan, and to humiliate Arledge just for the hell of it.

In many ship-based novels, this discipline is also reflected in the activities of all the people on board. Those people are usually sailors, and sailors are always working. According to Cohen,

In land-based narratives, characters generally maneuver to procure social advantage. On board ship, characters work, and indeed this chronotope, in interaction with other chronotopes of the sea, provides one of the most extended opportunities for the narratie dramatization of human labor.

Not so on the Tallahassee, where Jane Austen has been transplanted into the middle of the Mediterranean. First, we hardly see the crew at all. But the passengers are supposed to be working, too. Isn’t writing and composing work? They don’t do it though; they sit around idle, making small talk and pissing each other off. Maybe that’s why they want to get rid of each other. If they were hard at work they would be bonding over the shared task of sailing the ship, but instead they are jockeying for social position and since the losers can’t disappear from the scene the conflict boils over.